There are a lot of voices that are happy to tell you what this craft is all about. The general consensus seems to be that as long as you buy a bunch of stuff you may or may not use, you’re doing their version of the hobby right. This stuff is an investment right? Sell it off in the future for a tidy profit, or at least what you paid for it. (Let me know how that works for you.)

If you really want a solid investment in this craft, then invest in your own skills. Skills that will grow with you and expand your options, skills that will open the door for a deeper experience of all this craft can truly offer.

People often tell me that this is not a popular message. Thanks for sharing that but I’m not interested in adding to the noise about cheap, easy, and fast generic modeling. There are plenty of other places that will tell you what you want to hear.

The simple message of the books and this blog is this:

If you want to learn how to do something, the best way is to park your butt at the workbench and try. Start small, butcher up some materials, then try again and again. You’ll want to quit (and most people do at this point) because you’ll feel frustrated by the lack of instant gratification. The cure for that is to keep trying until you can do the thing whatever it is.

There are no shortcuts.

It will take longer than you want it to and it won’t be fun at first but in time you’ll increase your skill and understanding. In time you’ll try more complicated work to keep the challenge going. The bottom line is you’ll never run out of things to learn.

It’s the process, not the product.



  1. Simon

    I bought some lovely brass models last year. Truly lovely. All that was needed was a coat of paint, lettering and some weathering. They USRA light mikados, and I had the idea of modelling a scene on the old Rutland Railroad. But the Rutland used them off the shelf: just as the models came, no modifications. Not much for me to do, to personalise them.
    In the end, I sold them. Despite being hard to find when I wanted them, they were hard to sell, and that cut a hole in the hobby finances. Forget the fact that I imported them into the U.K., which added 20% to the combined cost including shipping, I lost out big time. When I bought them, I believed that “brass holds its value”. It doesn’t. I barely recouped the cost of one loco by selling the pair!

    Why did I sell them? In short, lovely as they were, they weren’t built by me. And I used the proceeds to buy myself a small milling machine, as this will give me a lot more enjoyment to learn how to use, and then in use – as I have found out over many years with a lathe! In terms of time spent using the mill, I will get much better value for my money than I would out of the locos.

    Investing in tools, and then the time to learn how to use them, is a liberating experience. If it takes me 200 or more hours to build a model from very few bought components, then I have created something of immense personal value – and that’s only from an average of 4 hours a week! For a loco, I will buy in a motor and some gears – possibly a gearbox – and some castings for wheel centres, but if necessary I can make the rest from sheet, bar and rod. Given the various offers that pop up now and then for coreless motors, the expenditure is not great: less than the price of a coffee from a shop once a week – closer to once every other week.

    So, I may end up with fewer models. But that isn’t less achievement. In fact, it’s more of an achievement, because it will have been made by me!

    I am at a similar stage to a friend of mine, when he was my age. A small layout, a handful of stock, quite a lot of experience but by no means fully versed in every technique and skill: enough to make a decent start, but to continue to improve. There will always be a new challenge.

    This friend is now in his early 80s and has an astonishing collection of models and a great layout – in fact, layouts – on which to turn them. He has gone from 4 locos to over a dozen, from two passenger cars to 22, and from a score of freight cars to about 80. His biggest problem is that if he built any more, he doesn’t know where to store them – so he has been building a few models for other people! I am lucky enough to have been his “right hand man” with these layouts, as he toured the U.K. exhibition circuit, so I gave enjoyed the fruits of his labours. It might be my turn next, though!

    For me, though, it has been his friendship which has been the best thing about this, for he has been generous in sharing his techniques with me, even to the extent of an occasional masterclass.

    There is a great deal of wisdom in what you are saying, Mike, for there is no layout in the U.K. where over 99% is the work of just one man, to this incredibly high standard: I have heard such well-known figures as Iain Rice express his awe at the standard of modelling!

  2. Matthieu

    A friend of mine is an avid tabletop war games player. He used to always complain he couldn’t paint model or do decor since we were in late high school. One day, I painted a few figures and vehicles just for the fun of it and he started to beg me to paint entire armies and scenery items… Many times I told him I wasn’t specially talented, just that I started at a young age and got accustomed to model making. But this time, I went further and decided to teach him a few basic lessons. He is an impatient fellow and I was sure he would get tired extremely fast… Well, for once in his life, he was doing something to his liking by himself. He was no longer a passive player but an active painter. His curiosity got the best of him and he started learning new techniques by himself. Interestingly enough, he has been at it for a few years and now paints in ways I couldn’t achieve without a lot of practice. Not only he’s fast and steady, but the results speaks for themselves. As for him, he now takes pride in his work and enjoy playing nice armies with delicate decors. What was a dream became a reality. He developed skills that are useful and rewarding for a life time. Up until now, I’ve been able to push a few friends into craftsmanship and it was a positive experience for all of them. It is sad that sense of achievement is now replaced by useless grievance and “apitoiement” nowadays. I’m glad my father was wise enough to teach me a few basics skills when I was a kid. I’m greatly indebted to him.

    @Simon: I recently built a MLW RS18 for my layout. It was kitbashed from less than stellar parts, but I took care to replicate as best as I could a specific prototype. I ended up knowing perfectly the real locomotive down to the rust spots. A friend of mine asked me if I would replace this “stand in” with a new announced release of this locomotive. My answer was simply no. My version may be crude, but I built it and it acquired a personality. The efforts I poured can’t be compared to purchasing the perfect model on the shelf.

  3. mike


    Like you, I find the layouts that stand out for me are those where the owner/builder has a singular vision. Ben King’s Timber City and Northwestern comes to mind as does a stunning older layout in the UK built by a gentleman named Norris if I recall. I still have the half century old article that MR did on this layout in 1961. I had never seen such work before or since. I’m also reminded of the scratch built locos by Tom Mix. Again, the pursuit of one man’s interest and curiosity over many decades produced work without peer. At the risk of hyperbole, I believe if we lose these skills and the desire to achieve them, we’ve lost the hobby. That’s why I published Tony’s work. If there’s any wisdom to these posts, it isn’t mine. I just share what I learn from other sources.


    I share the joy of discovery your friend found. Over the past month, I’ve found a joy in working with brass that I wouldn’t have imagined. So much so that I want to do more and more.

    Thank you gentlemen for being here.


  4. Pete Leach

    Calling this a craft, and not just a hobby hits to the heart of the divide in philosophy. A craft is something that is learned, and continues to build with experience. I have been building models for years and continue to grow with each one. There is a well known modeler that prescribes to the theory of “good enough!” I have taken a different approach by doing, and re-doing many things on my layout to make them good enough for me. Some of my hobby friends question my sanity at times, as does my wife! Thanks for confirming that I am not alone out there!

  5. mike

    Thanks for confirming that I am not alone out there!

    Thank you for doing the same Pete.


  6. steve hurt

    I never get tired of reading your entries Mike. Many times I think I should not take a model so serious or be philosophical about it. This is for fun right, no thinking allowed. HA

    But to me much of the fun is making this project better than the last project. Even if they are not similar, I still know the highs and lows of each. I know what looks how I wanted and I know what I don’t really like. Making each end of that spectrum better is the goal for me. I learn more from screwups than from success I think. My wife was a college basketball player and she always said that practicing what you are good at doesn’t make you better practicing what you are NOT good at does.

    I attempted my first scratchbuilt railcar when I was 7. As a gift for my dad for fathers day. It is horrible, BUT, it planted a seed then. I will be 50 in September and still trying to make each better. For some crazy reason my dad has kept that car in his display case all these years. I will have to send you a picture, you will get a kick out of it. Much like what was said about the RS18 above. I never go back to an old model to correct things or improve them. I like having the gauge of “I thought that looked good in 1987, or 1997, or 2007 etc…” Once it’s done it’s done for me. Keeping the model how I built it then is fun to look back at.

    You guys are not alone for sure. There may not be many, but none of us are alone

  7. mike

    Thanks Steve.


  8. Marty McGuirk


    Good thoughts as always.
    I think far too many model railroaders conflate “Accumlation” with “Modeling.”

    I thought I’d done a good job of reducing inventory before we moved last year – it turns out that little, if any, of the stuff I’d saved will find a home on the new railroad, so I’m once again going to do the swap meet circuit this coming fall. While one of my goals is to clear out the basement, the real objective is to remove the impediment to my progress as a modeler that all this stuff represents. Think of it as clearing the cobwebs from creative indulgence in the craft and art.

    I recently completed a couple of resin car models. Building a resin freight car to me is not a big accomplishment, but in the case of each of these models I gave myself a specific goal I wanted to achieve – it could be something simple like “figure a better way to make the corner grabs on the rooftop laterals look better” or “bend accurate sill steps from brass stock and install them complete with fasteners to the car side accurately represented.”

    It took me three or four attempts at both these tasks, but I know moving forward that I can fabricate exactly what I need.

  9. mike

    Hi Marty,

    It’s interesting that you see the excess stuff as an impediment to your progress. Not many would feel that way. Your last thought sums up the intent of this blog nicely: that developing such skills provides freedom from the whims of the marketplace. Thanks for writing in.